Mike Krzyzewski’s first Army team was captained by Philadelphia’s Tom Valerio

The opposing players were laughing as they had their way against Army’s second unit during a preseason scrimage, much to the chagrin of the Cadets’ rookie head coach.

Mike Krzyzewski had yet to coach one of his 1,570 college games and this — a 1975 tuneup before his first season at West Point — would not count toward his record. But the chuckles from the other side still stung. And Krzyzewski responded by issuing his starters an ultimatum before they checked back into the scrimmage.

Don’t let them score for the next six minutes. No baskets. No foul shots. Not a point.

Krzyzewski looked each player in the eye, making sure they understood. Tom Valerio, the team’s captain who grew up in Montgomery County, led his teammates in a chant of “1, 2, 3, defense!” and returned to the court with a sense of dread.

Six minutes without a point? Valerio could already hear Krzyzewski punishing the team with a two-hour practice.

“But then we get in there and you’re going through it and you’re stopping them,” Valerio said. “Everyone is going all-out like it’s the Final Four and diving for balls. We’re committed to not letting them score. ‘We can do this. We can really do this.’ ”

Krzyzewski, whose 47-year coaching career ended on Saturday with Duke’s loss to North Carolina in the Final Four, convinced the Cadets to commit to his philosophy. He wanted to mold them into a defensive-minded team. Those six minutes provided them the belief that they could do it.

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Valerio can’t recall who the opponent was that day — maybe it was Penn State, he said — but he remembers what it felt like when Krzyzewski requested something.

It’s moments like that he carried with him from his season as Krzyzewski’s captain, leaning on Coach K’s leadership techniques during six years in the Army and a successful business career.

“Even if you look past the gold medals, the national championships, the 1,200 wins, the coach of the year, all of them. I always tell people that coaching — even though he’s an incredibly good basketball coach — is probably the third-greatest asset about him,” Valerio said. “What I think his greatest asset is, is leadership. The great leaders, the really great leaders, earn the right to demand more from you. They push you. Coach K is a great leader with a tremendous set of values ​​who also happens to be an incredible basketball coach.”

Valerio grew up in Bridgeport and played alongside Geno Auriemma at Bishop Kenrick under legendary coach Buddy Gardler. Valerio was recruited to the Army by assistant coach Fran Dunphy and played three years for Dan Dougherty, a St. Joseph’s Prep grad who would return to Philly and become a renowned high school coach.

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The Army players did not know much about Krzyzewski when he was hired to replace Dougherty before Valerio’s senior year. They knew he was a cadet and played at West Point for Bob Knight, and went on to be one of Knight’s assistants at Indiana. That was about it.

Valerio, voted by his teammates to be captain, would soon find out more. The coach — who was a captain during his time at West Point — would meet with Valerio and let him know what he expected.

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“Practice, drills, everything was important,” Valerio said. “He counted on me to set the example. He would say, ‘You’re one of the players but people will follow what you do and I will call you out so everyone knows that I’m calling you out.’ He’s trying to set a tone and get everyone to buy in. If he doesn’t see his captain as someone who is living his philosophy, then he probably would have replaced me.”

“There were things that he wanted us to do but he didn’t always want the message coming from him or the staff. I don’t want to say I was elevated as someone that was special as much as sometimes leaders have to reinforce a message. As the season progressed, he would talk to me about something that he wanted to make sure we did well and I knew what he was talking about.”

Army finished 11-14 that season, an eight-win improvement from the previous year. Its final loss of the season was by three points to St. Peter’s as Army dropped its sixth straight game. The players were dejected in the locker room, waiting for Krzyzewski to order them to put on their practice gear and run line drills on the court. It was their fifth loss that season by four points or fewer. Surely their coach had had enough.

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“He paused and he just looked around,” Valerio said. He said, ‘I’m really, really proud of you guys. You did everything I asked you to do. We came up short and I’m not happy we lost but I’m proud of you guys. I’m proud to be your coach.’ To a bunch of guys who just wanted to be good and just lost a really tough game, that really resonates.”

A week later, the Cadets finished the season with a win over rival Navy, their first game since Coach K told them he was proud after a loss. Valerio would soon leave West Point for Fort Dix, and he’s still carrying his coach’s lessons with him nearly 50 years later.

“You don’t want to let him down,” Valerio said. “When he believes in you and you give your effort and fall short, you feel bad to let him down. That’s the kind of thing that he inspired. That’s why his leadership is the foundation to his success. If he ran a company, he would be a top Fortune CEO. If he wanted to go into any other field, he’d be great at it. He just chose coaching.”

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